We all have false memories but when these surface during criminal trials, there are severe consequences. Probably the most infamous example is the McMartin preschool injustice in the mid-1980s. A few years later, advertising executive Gary Ramona spent five years in prison after his daughter was goaded by two overenthusiastic therapists into thinking he had raped her as a child.
Criminal psychologist Julia Shaw is an expert on how false memories form and is sometimes called as a defense witness. She also works with members of law enforcement and the military to suggest interrogation techniques that will make false confessions less likely.
Shaw listed several factors that cause a person to “recover” a “lost memory.” It matters who the accuser was with when the memory was recalled, what questions were asked, and what their state of mind was. Were they vulnerable to a therapist implanting a constructed memory, such as which happened in the Ramona tragedy?
It is usually telling when a traumatic memory surfaces for the first time during therapy conducted decades later. That’s what happened to Eileen Franklin, who at 29 instantaneously “recalled” in a hypnotherapy session that her father George had raped and killed her childhood friend. Subsequent recollections included vivid images and specifics of the event. She knew what type of jewelry the victim was wearing, where curves in the dirt road near the killing site were, and how dense the surrounding forest was. She also recalled that the deceased was concealed under a mattress.
However, detectives later realized that all the details she had given had appeared in newspaper accounts of the case. The only exceptions were things that Eileen had gotten wrong. For instance, the victim was found wearing two rings, not the single silver one she had recalled. She was also mistaken on the time of day it occurred. There were other inconsistencies. The mattress covering the victim was too big to fit into the Franklins’ car, which is where Eileen said her father retrieved it from. Still, Franklin was convicted, then released six years later after DNA evidence showed he could not have committed the crime.
Eileen’s case had the major tell-tale signs of false memory: Sex abuse by someone known to the victim or witness and the repressed memory being brought out during hypnotherapy or psychotherapy.
Let’s spend a little time going over these techniques. The Quad Cities’ Genesis Health System has continued its embrace of pretend alternative medicine by offering hypnotherapy, which it describes as “accessing the subconscious to rearrange the associations that drive your daily behaviors. Hypnotherapy is a treatment focusing primarily on your subconscious. Hypnosis is a natural state people slip in and out of all day long, and hypnotherapy merely takes advantage of that state to better understand the client’s mentality.”
Sounds like all this can be a post for another day. For now, we’ll let it suffice that hypnotherapy can be of limited use in a few instances, but should be avoided by someone trying to work through deep-seeded issues. Further, any “revelation” that emerges when a hypnotherapist coaxes a mentally anguished patient to dig deeper should not be the impetus to incarcerate the alleged perpetrator.
Psychotherapy, meanwhile, is defined as “the treatment of mental disorders by psychological rather than medical means.” It can be valuable and beneficial, but any spontaneous memories from 25 years ago should still not be a precursor to criminal charges.
Cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus worked with defense attorneys to get Franklin’s conviction overturned and her involvement in the case spurred her to do pioneer research into false memories.
The idea of repressed memories gained traction in the era of McMartin, Geraldo specials, and UFO abduction tales. In these and similar instances, patients were encouraged to visualize, to let their mind wander to where the therapist guided, and to use their imagination to access repressed memories. And few of them were recalling that extra yummy ice cream cone from 15 summers ago. They were dredging up trauma.
To determine how susceptible a person might be to suggestion by an authority figure, Loftus recruited 24 participants and gave each of them narratives outlining four experiences from their childhood. Three of the stories came from their parents’ recollections, while the fourth was a work of fiction. In this outlier, the subject was said to have been lost at the mall, then returned by a stranger to their parents. Participants were directed to write down as many details as they could about the four storylines. When interviewed about their recollections, some began to share the emotions they experienced while being lost and then returned. Some even detailed the rescuer’s clothing, even though none of this had happened.
One-fourth of the subjects ended up recalling this event that never occurred. Loftus stressed the importance that the other person in the room can play in false memories popping up. “The key is suggestibility,” she said. “Often, false memories develop because there’s exposure to external suggestive information. Or people can draw inferences about what might have happened.”
In such situations, persons can assume pieces to fill in the gaps. These embellishments may come from other people’s accounts, their own imagination, or their current situation.
Being convinced that one wandered from the mall’s play area in Kindergarten is one thing, but what if the accusation were of something sinister? Shaw wondered if she could get the same response when trying to convince someone they had committed a crime. Inspired by the Loftus experiment, Shaw told 30 recruits that she had received details from their acquaintances about a time in their teens when the participants had assaulted someone or stolen something. To make it more believable, Shaw included accurate biological information, such as where they were living at the time, where they normally hung out, and the name of their partner in imagined crime.
After the initial meeting, none of the participants could recall the false memory. But every night for three weeks, subjects were encouraged to spend a few minutes visualizing the event. Utilizing the techniques she knows therapists (with either well-meaning or vindictive intent) employ, Shaw eventually convinced 70 percent of the subjects they had committed this non-existent crime. All that had been required to achieve this were weaving elements of truth with consistent pressure to visualize the event.